Category Archives: Freedom

The downfall of… Trump or Democracy?

The future of the United States as a democracy is at risk. That’s plenty scary. More scary is that many Americans know this, but don’t care. And even more astonishing is that this same thing happened 45 years ago.

I remember it clearly. January 30, just a couple weeks ago. On that day, we had the news that FBI deputy director McCabe — a frequent target of apparently-baseless Trump criticism — had been pushed out. The Trump administration refused to enforce the bipartisan set of additional sanctions on Russia. And the House Intelligence Committee voted on party lines to release what we all knew then, and since have seen confirmed, was a memo filled with errors designed to smear people investigating the president, but which nonetheless contained enough classified material to cause an almighty kerfuffle in Washington.

I told my wife that evening, “I think today will be remembered as a turning point. Either to the downfall of Trump, or the downfall of our democracy, but I don’t know which.”

I have not written much about this scandal, because so many quality words have already been written. But it is time to add something.

I was interested in Watergate years ago. Back in middle school, I read All the President’s Men. I wondered what it must have been like to live through those events — corruption at the highest level of government, dirty tricks, not knowing how it would play out. I wished I could have experienced it.

A couple of decades later, I have got my wish and I am not amused. After all:

“If these allegations prove to be true, what they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money or other property of American citizens, but something much more valuable — their most precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election…

If the allegations… are substantiated, there has been a very serious subversion of the integrity of the electoral process, and the committee will be obliged to consider the manner in which such a subversion affects the continued existence of this nation as a representative democracy, and how, if we are to survive, such subversions may be prevented in the future.”

Sen. Sam Ervin Jr, May 17, 1973

That statement from 45 years ago captures accurately my contemporary fears. If foreign interference in our elections is not only tolerated but embraced, where does that leave us? Are we really a republic anymore?

I have been diving back into Watergate. In One Man Against The World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, written by Tim Weiner in 2015, he dives into the Nixon story in unprecedented detail, thanks to the release of many more files from that time. In his very first page, he writes:

[Nixon] made war in pursuit of peace. He committed crimes in the name of the law. He tore the country apart while trying to unite it. He sabotaged his presidency by violating the Constitution. He destroyed himself and damaged the nation through deliberate acts of folly…

He practiced geopolitics without subtlety; he preferred subterfuge and brutality. He dropped bombs and napalm without remorse; he believed they delivered a political message beyond flood and fire. Hr charted the course of the war without a strategy; he delivered victory to his adversaries.

His gravest decisions undermined his allies abroad. His grandest delusions armed his enemies at home…

The truth was not in him; secrecy and deception were his touchstones.

That these words describe another American president, one that I’m sure Weiner had not foreseen, is jarring. The parallels between Nixon and Trump in the pages of Weiner’s book are so strong that one sometimes wonders if Weiner has a more accurate story of Trump than Wolff got – and also if the pages of his book let us see what’s in store for us this year.

Today I started listening to the excellent podcast Slow Burn. If you have time for nothing else, listen to episode 5: True Believers. It discusses the politicization of the Senate Watergate committee, and more ominously, the efforts of reports to understand the people that still supported Nixon — despite all the damning testimony already out there.

Gail Sheehy went to a bar where Nixon supporters gathered, wanting to get their reaction to the Watergate hearings. The supporters didn’t want to watch. They thought the hearings were just an attempt by liberals to take down Nixon. Sheehy found the president’s people to be “angry, demoralized, and disconcertingly comfortable with the idea of a police state run by Richard Nixon.”

These guys felt they were nobodies… except Richard Nixon gave them an identity. He was a tough guy who was “going to get rid of all those anti-war people, anarchists, terrorists… the people that were tearing down our country!”

Art Buchwald’s tongue-in-cheek handy excuses for Nixon backers seems to be copied almost verbatim by Fox News (substitute Hillary’s emails for Chappaquiddick).

And what happened to the scum of Richard Nixon’s era? Yes, some went to jail, but not all.

  • Steve King, one of Nixon’s henchmen that kidnapped Martha Mitchell (wife of Attorney General and Nixon henchman John Mitchell) for a week to keep her from spilling the beans on Watergate, beat her up, and had her drugged — well he was appointed by Trump to be ambassador to the Czech Republic and confirmed by the Senate.
  • The man that said that the Watergate burglars were “not criminal at heart” because “their only aim was to re-elect the president” later got elected president himself, and pardoned one of the burglars. (Ronald Reagan)
  • The man that said “just let the president do his job!” was also elected president (George H. W. Bush)
  • The man that finally carried out Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox was nominated to the Supreme Court, but his nomination was blocked in the Senate. (Robert Bork) He was, however, on the United States Court of Appeals for 6 years.
  • And in an odd conspiracy-laden introduction to a reprint of a youth’s history book on Watergate, none other than Roger Stone, wrapped up in Trump’s shenanigans, was trying to defend Nixon. Oh, and he was a business partner with Paul Manafort and lobbyist for Ferdinand Marcos.

One comfort from all of this is the knowledge that we had been there before. We had lived through an era of great progress in civil rights, and right after that elected a dictatorial crook president. We survived the president’s fervent supporters refusing to believe overwhelming evidence of his crookedness. We survived.

And yet, that is no guarantee. After all, as John Dean put it, Nixon “might have survived if there’d been a Fox News.”

Is the Roman Emperor Still Your God?

In ancient Rome, the Imperial cult was the worship of the Roman emperor as a god. It came to be at roughly the same time as Christianity. In the cult of the emperor, Caesar was revered as a deity. According to Harvey Cox, “This was what we might today call a “civil religion” — it had its holidays, processions, and holy sites throughout the empire. Adherence to it was required of all of the emperor’s subjects, wherever they lived and whatever other deities they also worshiped. It was the religious and ideological mucilage that held the far-flung empire together.”

Perhaps you see where this is going. There was a certain group that found the imperial cult, well, repugnant. They felt their own goals — bringing their god’s peace and justice to the world — were incompatible with this sort of devotion to a human institution, and the very institution that had killed their leader at that. Their reaction went like this:

Regarding worship of the emperor, Christians responded with an unequivocal “no.” They claimed that Jesus Christ was God’s kyrios (“anointed one” in Greek), but since kyrios was one of the titles attributed to Caesar, they refused to participate in the imperial cult. They were willing to pray for the emperor and for his health, but they stubbornly refused to pray to him or offer ritual tribute. They recognized that one could not be a follower of Jesus while also honoring a rival to the loyalty their faith in him and his Kingdom required; therefore, “not even one pinch of incense on the imperial altar.” This defiance of the political religion of the empire, which led their critics to brand them subversive, landed many of them in arenas with salivating lions.

— Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith

Now, you may be wondering, why am I asking if anyone still worships the emperor of a long-extinct empire? I maintain that this practice is still alive and well, just under a different name.

I have been interested in some of the debates about American institutions that choose to perform neither the national anthem nor the pledge of allegiance. Many of these institutions are Mennonite, and their reason for not participating in these two particular acts mirrors that of the early Christians refusing to worship Caesar: namely, their goal is to bring about God’s peaceful and just kingdom on earth, and no country, no human institution at all, can ever command greater loyalty than that cause.

Moreover, the American national anthem is a particularly violent one, celebrating the taking of life right there at the beginning. Not completely compatible with the ethics of a church trying to bring about a more peaceful world, right?

It is from that basis that many Mennonites, and our institutions, do not perform the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance. For myself, when the national anthem is being performed, I will stand out of respect for those around me for whom the moment is important, but I do not sing. I am deeply appreciative that the United States, like many other countries, makes it legal to do this. I am heartened by the fact that I do not risk a confrontation with the lions over my religious stance today.

Goshen College, a Mennonite institution, recently decided to go back on a century of history (which goes back farther than the anthem itself, which was only adopted in 1931) and will now be performing the anthem, followed by a prayer, before select sporting events.

And by so doing, they fail both to act in accordance with the way of Christ, and to be a patriot. They fail to act for peace and justice by playing an anthem that supports and glorifies war and violence.

And they fail to be patriotic. Patriotism and nationalism are different things. It’s easy to be nationalistic — to get up there and sing a song that everyone wants you to sing. It is far more difficult to be patriotic. Being patriotic in the United States means using the freedoms we have to improve our country. Goshen ought to use its freedom to not observe the national anthem as a way to try to draw a line in the sand against violence, to suggest that our anthem fails to adequately recognize the character of the American people and who we want to be, and to suggest a better alternative. After all, those people who are venerated today as patriots — anyone from Martin Luther to Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King — stood up to their fallible human governments to seek positive change.

Instead of a route both religious and patriotic, Goshen College has chosen one that is neither. I am deeply disappointed that 300 phone calls have apparently cowed their leadership. What have we come to when our ancestors braved the lions, and we give up our principles over the fear of… bad publicity?

Ah, Goshen, perhaps you are thinking that you could spare a few pinches of incense for Caesar after all?

Imagine 1

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a young man in your 20s, trying to make your way in the world. You are married and have a young daughter, just old enough to start to talk. You live in a run-down neighborhood, long passed-over by any economic advances. What schools you had access to barely taught anyone much. The few jobs you can reach have fierce competition, even though the pay is low. You worry about your health, but even more about that of your wife and child. Finding food is a constant concern. Although you are still healthy now, and you are willing and able to be a hard worker, there is simply nobody hiring people in your area. Not to mention the gunfights that erupt between gangs or drug dealers. Oh, and did I mention that your wife is 4 months pregnant?

Your top priority is to do your best to keep your family safe. You’re afraid that your whole family will starve, or be killed by an errant bullet. You’ve tried for a long time — it seems like forever — to do everything you can think of, with no success. Finally, you decide that the only way you can have the hope for a better life is to move somewhere where the economy is better, and the drug dealers are fewer.

But moving hundreds or thousands of miles away is no easy task when you have no money to move. Somehow, with some luck, ingenuity, and tenacity, you have finally managed to find a way. You have no job offer in your new town, but conditions are so bleak at home that you just can’t risk staying there. So the three of you move 1500 miles away.

You arrive with no money, no apartment, and don’t know anybody. But you’re a hard worker, and have talked yourself into a job. It pays what passes for minimum wage in your new home, but it’s a fortune compared to what you made before. It’s backbreaking work, and you work long hours. But soon you can afford a cramped apartment, and keep your refrigerator stocked with food. What a luxury!

Pretty soon your new baby son is born. You can afford to feed him, your daughter, your wife, and yourself, every day. When you’re really lucky, you even have some money left over to send to your brother back home, who is still struggling to make ends meet there. You seem to have climbed the first rung on the American Dream ladder.

Years pass. Your old home becomes a memory; your daily life revolves around new struggles now. Your oldest child is in school, your wife finds part-time work sometimes too, cleaning houses for rich people. You’ve been laid off several times, your income isn’t guaranteed, and the others in your new home don’t take kindly to strangers — and they still think you’re one. But it’s better than flying bullets and never knowing where your next meal will come from.

Then one day, while you are at work, federal agents show up. You are arrested and taken to jail. Agents show up at home, too, arresting your wife. It turns out that they realized you entered the country illegally from Ecuador those years ago. Meanwhile, your wife wonders what will happen to your son that was playing in a neighbor’s yard while she was arrested, or to your daugther that was at school.

After months in jail, with little contact with each other, and poor medical care, the government decides to deport you to Mexico. Why Mexico? Well, it’s cheaper, and there’s no documentation showing where you came from. Apparently you “look” Mexican, and they don’t believe your story.

After months in jail with no income, you are once again bankrupt. A government bus takes you to Mexico and drops you down someplace there, with your wife and your oldest child. Your younger child was born in the United States, and so is an American citizen and can’t be deported. But the government isn’t going to give him a free ride on a prison bus (and Mexico wouldn’t take him anyway, since everyone knows he’s American). You have no idea where he is. You have no idea how you’re going to find food in Mexico, no idea how to find your son, no idea where to find refuge from the ever more prevalent drug dealers. Meanwhile, the Americans think you’re scum because you wanted to protect your family, and it’s going to be much more difficult to get back in to try to reunite your family.

This story is based on true events.

It’s truly easy to demonize illegal immigrants, isn’t it? Easy to round them up by the thousands, easy to build a bigger fence, easy to lock them away.

Sometimes it seems like this nation built on freedom, supposedly on Christian values, has lost sight of compassion for the lowly. In this country, we would throw in jail parents that didn’t do everything humanly possible to find food for their children. We also throw in jail parents that grew up in other countries that are just doing the same.

How sad that we have people going on TV, suggesting we round up millions of Americans that happened to come here illegally, breaking up millions of families, creating an immense foster child problem, a human tragedy on a mass scale. How incredible that some of these people on TV wear the title “senator” or “candidate for president”. How stupid do they think we are, suggesting that a poor South American family would somehow be able to navigate the arcane American immigration system and wait the 15 years to get here legally, if they manage to come up with all the necessary money somehow?

Politicians have been pushing our buttons for too long. We aren’t a nation of selfish hoarders; we came together through tough times, survived the Depression, put in place the Berlin Airlift that saved countless lives in West Berlin. But the thought of someone with darkish skin coming to this country and building highways is enough to send some people looking for a rifle.

I hope that we will someday do better.

Right to Live and Right to Die

Thus far, I have avoided commenting on the Terry Shiavo case, but I feel that it is time to do so.

First, the media has done an astoundingly poor job of covering this. For a very interesting, and needed, backgrounder, look here. I am amazed at how often the media portrays the case as hinging on the word of the husband. It, in fact, never did; several more of Terry’s relatives had separate conversations with her that agreed with Michael’s interpretation. From the court’s findings of fact:

Also the statements she[Terri] made in the presence of Scott Schiavo at the funeral luncheon for his grandmother that “if I ever go like that just let go. Don’t leave me there. I don’t want to be kept alive on a machine,” and to Joan Schiavo following a television movie in which a man following an accident was in a coma to the effect that she wanted it stated in her will that she would want the tubes and everything taken out if that ever happened to her are likewise reflective of this intent. The court specifically finds that these statements are Terri Schiavo’s oral declarations concerning her intention as to what she would want done under the present circumstances and the testimony regarding such oral declarations is reliable, is creditable and rises to the level of clear and convincing evidence to this court.

So we have a case where three relatives recalled direct statements from Terri expressing her wishes.

We have heard plenty of comment from people saying that the judiciary is violating Terri’s right to life by ordering the feeding tube removed. I don’t think so; the evidence shows that she didn’t want to live with a feeding tube.

If the courts decided the case any other way, it would be violating her right to death. Or, put another way, the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the words of the founders of this nation. Terri apparently believed that living hooked up to a machine was no life at all, and if we deprive her of the ability to make these decisions about herself, we have also deprived her of her own personal liberty — made her a prisoner in her own body, subject to the will of others.

I am particularly dismayed that Jesse Jackson and other religious people once again found it necessary to intervene on the wrong side of freedom in this case. Perhaps they don’t agree with this sort of end-of-life decision. But plenty of people make these decisions and they should have the right to do so. The idea of not forcing one’s will upon others seems to be a core Christian one to me, at least. Depriving someone of their liberty is an act this society usually exercises only regarding criminals, not hospice patients.

For Terri’s parents, who tried so hard to override her will — even if they were motivated by their concern for her — this was a deeply selfish act for which they should not be proud.

I have no idea what her husband’s motives are, but even if they were evil, his motives alone don’t account for the other corroborating testimony given by Terri’s other relatives.

Who is the real communist, comrade Gates?

Bill gates recently gave an interview in which he said that people that opposed software patents, or other tightening of intellectual property laws, are “communists”.

Richard M. Stallman has an amusing and elightening article, Bill Gates and other communists, in response.

Favorite juicy quote:

Thanks to Mr. Gates, we now know that an open Internet with protocols anyone can implement is communism; it was set up by that famous communist agent, the U.S. Department of Defense.

House Outlaws Fast-Forwarding; Senate & Pres Next?

These sorts of things really tick me off. Wired is reporting that the U.S. House has passed HR2391, which, among other things, would make it a violation of the Copyright Act to skip commercials using a technological means (hardware or software) — and it makes it a violation to make the computer program that allows people to skip commercials.

I feel a donation to the EFF coming on.